Why President Obama’s Middle East Policy is Wrong for Israel
Yesterday’s speech by President Obama on the United States’ posture toward the Middle East, by nearly all accounts, offers little or nothing new.
His most provocative pronouncement, that Israel must withdraw to its 1967 borders and allow the formation of a Palestinian state that allows sovereignty to the West Bank and Gaza, simply restates a long-standing policy. In 2011, this policy only spells destruction to the Palestinians, and perhaps to the state of Israel too.
Settlements: building your living room in your neighbor’s yard
When policymakers speak of the 1967 borders, they are referring to the borders of Israel that defined the nation between the war of Israeli independence in 1948 prior to the 1967 Six Day War. These borders formed the internationally recognized Green Line seen on most contemporary maps of the region. Whether or not this line forms an official border is a matter of great debate on the Internet and elsewhere. But it is generally understood that future agreements, if they are to offer Palestinians any sovereignty over land travel, airspace, and natural resources such as water, should include the contiguous lands inside the Green Line as the boundaries of a Palestinian State.
The twin sticking points in any negotiations regarding the boundaries of a two-state solution is usually found when the discussion turns to the status of the holy sites in Jerusalem and the future status of the settlements. Various solutions have been offered for Jerusalem, but the settlements offer the most challenging problem.
The word “settlement” sounds benign, harkening back to notions of frontier America with its primitive camps and wagon trains. Even the most casual observer to the region will acknowledge that the settlements are far from benign. Any visitor to Bethlehem or other common tourist destination will see that these settlements are indeed entire cities with modern buildings and infrastructure. They have their own superhighways that link them to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa, often leading through tunnels underneath Palestinian cities. They are also often huge: Gilo, outside the Palestinian city of Beit Jala, houses some 40,000 people.
The Security Wall
Visitors to the region will also note a significant feature: a wall that roughly follows the outline of the Palestinian lands. This wall is a blast-proof concrete structure that closely resembles the Berlin wall in its form. It is 25 feet high in most places and is dotted with menacing-looking guard towers along its length. When traveling to Bethlehem, one of the Palestinian cities most frequented by pilgrims and tourists, one has the impression of entering a prison.
While the Israeli government claims that this wall is necessary to prevent terrorist attacks (and has, no doubt, prevented some such attacks), its true purpose can be observed from various rooftops that overlook its outline. The wall separates resources from those who rightfully control them. In Beit Jala one can clearly observe that a large olive grove is separated from its owners by the Wall. Further north a map reveals areas where the Wall dips deep inside Palestinian lands, placing precious aquifers within easy access to Israel. Conservative estimates hold that 80% of Palestinian water is controlled by Israel; what Israel does not need, it sells back to the Palestinians at greatly inflated prices. It is also common for Israel to turn off the water flow to Palestinian cities for weeks at a time. It is hard to conceive of access to water as anything other than a basic human right.
Palestinian leaders can often be heard saying that if one wants to build a fence on his property, than he has the right to do so. Their complaint is heard when they say, “But please build your fence on your own property, not your neighbor’s!” Equally strange in Israeli logic is the placement of the settlements behind the wall. It is perhaps the equivalent of not only building a fence on your neighbor’s property, but then building your living room in your neighbor’s front yard.
Make no mistake: Israeli settlements — these huge, hill-covering cities — are built behind the wall that is constructed ostensibly for the sake of Israeli security. If Israelis seek to live in peace without the threat of bombs and rockets falling on their homes, why would they build communities deep inside the territory of their enemies, fencing themselves in behind a 25-foot-high concrete wall?
It is this that makes Netanyahu’s response to Obama’s speech so incredulous. Netanyahu panned Obama’s policy, remarking that returning to the 1967 borders would create an Israel that was “indefensible.” What is indefensible is the notion that security can be perpetuated by occupying cities that do not belong to you, by building walls that steal aquifers, and by building cities inside your enemy’s territory.
Christian Guilt & Biblical Prophecy
The United States provides billions to Israel each year in economic and military assistance. Without American dollars, Israel would not be able to build settlements and offer tax relief to those who are ideologically driven to live in them. Israel would not be able to service the tanks that invade Gaza, or the fighter jets that drop bombs on and fire missiles into Palestinian cities. And the United States cannot provide those billions without the support of American churches. Yes, American churches.
Christian guilt over its own historic anti-Semitism, along with guilt over the Holocaust, makes it extraordinarily difficult to critique the modern Jewish state. Christians know all too well that the Holocaust took place at the hands of the leaders of a Christian nation. Only as late as the Second Vatican Council did the Roman Catholic Church finally repudiate the charge that the Jews collectively bear the guilt of Christ’s crucifixion.
Theological trends of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries also contributed to the Christian support for the state of Israel. A reading of scripture by the English architect John Darby led to the development of “dispensationalism,” which lends support to the popular idea that the modern state of Israel is indeed a fulfillment of Bible prophecy. This idea, dramatically reinforced in Tim LaHaye’s blockbuster “Left Behind” books, coupled with Christian guilt, provides an almost impenetrable support of Israeli policies and the turning of a blind eye toward the plight of the Palestinians, many of whom are fellow Christians.
The End of the Peace Process
Watchers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have become aware of a certain pattern that begins with a growing hope for peace and a willingness to finally settle the conflict. The two parties announce that they are coming to the table. Extremist Palestinian groups then attack Israelis, usually settlers. These attacks are used as a pretext for withdrawal from the peace process, and tensions arise. The Israelis announce that new settlements will be built, or that Palestinian homes will be demolished in East Jerusalem. The talks break down. Tensions rise, tensions fall, and the cycle repeats itself. Endlessly.
The more cynical observer will notice that each time this cycle repeats, Israel creeps deeper into Palestinian territory. Each new settlement makes it more difficult to return to 1967 borders. Today it is easy to imagine a scenario in which there will be no more Palestinian land with which to form a state. Many believe the time for a two-state solution is already in the past.
But is a one-state solution, an Israel in which Jews and Palestinians live together in harmony, possible? It would seem not. But one must ask: if the Wall does not protect Israelis who intentionally build cities behind it, and if permanent settlements fill Palestinian lands, then is there not already a de-facto one-state solution in place? And if so, how shall there be both peace and justice in the region?
The Question of Apartheid
Many, including former President Jimmy Carter, have been sharply criticized by calling the current system of occupation in Israel “Apartheid.” When a nation divides people by religion or ethnic heritage, creates cities where one person can live and another cannot, where roads may accommodate either Jews or Arabs but not both, and where different license plates are given to cars belonging to one group or another, it is difficult to imagine any other descriptive term.
There was a time when Christians became outraged at apartheid in South Africa. Their voices were combined with others, and apartheid fell. Some suggest that criticism of Israeli policy is anti-Semitic, places Israel in mortal peril, and goes against God. The emerging criticism of Israel’s injustice is not unlike that of the great prophet Jeremiah, whose words saved his nation.
What must change
As they say, “The first casualty of war is truth.” It is impossible to wade through all the facts and figures so hotly debated through sixty years of conflict. Go and see for yourself. Take a cab from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and see the wall. Sit in an ice cream parlor in Ramallah. Have tea in a Palestinian shop in Hebron. Walk down the streets of Beit Sahour at midnight as wedding celebrations sweep through the city. Such adventures are risky: they might force you to change your mind.
A two-state solution is indeed preferable. But if the time is already past, some changes must take place. Tear down the wall. Let the Palestinians share in the water. Let them work their farms. Let them travel and everywhere seek a better life for themselves. You have the land: now share it. “Good will come to those who are generous and lend freely, who conduct their affairs with justice.” (Psalm 112:5)
And for Mr. Netanyahu: time is not on your side. You may believe that by continually obstructing negotiations you may gradually take all the land for Israel. But your own history shows that absolute power not only destroys the powerless, but the powerful as well. You, not your neighbors, may be your own worst enemy. And your enemies are at the gates: this time not with suicide vests, but with the more formidable weapons of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and of Jesus. Peace will come, not from the end of a gun, but from the peaceful.